Articles

CONN SMYTHE’S WONDROUS PLEASURE DOME

JOHN CLARE March 1 1958
Articles

CONN SMYTHE’S WONDROUS PLEASURE DOME

JOHN CLARE March 1 1958

CONN SMYTHE’S WONDROUS PLEASURE DOME

JOHN CLARE

Like “the rink” in any Canadian town, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens has become a kind of community catchall, providing a wide-screen setting for such varied enterprises as opera, wrestling, basketball, religious revivals, ice shows, political rallies and, of course, hockey games.

Three or four days a week throughout the winter season and for a week at a time when big shows such as the Metropolitan Opera or the Ice Capades are in town, the Gardens plays host to crowds that vary in their mood and make-up as much as the attractions themselves. In a year almost one and a half million people go to the Gardens. Even in the summer, when it is pretty well untenanted except for the wrestlers who continue to perform Thursday evenings, visitors come from all parts of Canada. Guides are on hand to show them through half-lit corridors out to the great vaulted arena itself.

All are surprised that it is so big (a hundred and fifty feet from the floor to the dome) and most of them ask to be shown the gondola from which Foster Hewitt has done his hockey broadcasts ever since the Gardens opened more than twenty-six years ago. Maple Leaf Gardens, like Casa Loma, is one of the sights to see when you're in Toronto.

Even in the dim light the visitors can catch a glimpse of the personality of the place for, like all big arenas, it has one. Madison

Built in the teeth of a depression and a cleric's anger, Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens serves up everything from hockey to opera to a million and a half avid fans a year. But for its builder a flop was its greatest night

Square Garden in New York, seen through a smog of blue smoke on fight nights, looks like a painting by Bellows. The galleries of Montreal’s Forum are a fine and fitting setting for the impassioned citizens who lean out of them and shake their fists as though the tumbrels, not just the Toronto Maple Leafs, were going past. The Gardens is seen best, of course, when there is hockey. The professionals play every Saturday night during the winter and some Wednesdays; the juniors play regular double-headers Sunday afternoons. The freshly painted red, blue, green and grey seats and railings contrast crisply with the white of the ice—and even the ice is painted. On these nights the Gardens has the shipshape look of a big liner proudly standing out to sea in fine weather.

For those who expect their shrines to have a patina of age, the Gardens might appear new and tidy to the point of fussiness. Conn Smythe, the man who built the arena in 1931, which was not a vintage year, planned it that way and has kept it spotless ever since it opened. When he was going around the country as manager of hockey teams, including the Toronto St. Pats, forerunners to the Maple Leafs, he saw enough of ill-kept rinks, badly equipped dressing rooms and primitive washrooms to make good housekeep-

CONTINUED OVERLEAF

Showmanship of Elvis Presley attracted 14,400. Winston Churchill drew a small house in 1934.

Conn Smythe’s wondrous pleasure dome: continued

From rock V roll and politics to circuses and wrestling, a tumbling cavalcade parades through Maple Leaf Gardens’ wide-screen showcase

ing in his own gleaming sports palace a fetish.

Like a bridge or a ship, the Gardens is constantly being painted. At least two painters are on the job all the time and last year they stroked fifteen hundred gallons of paint on the seats alone, starting at the rail with the red scats. Thirty-five men arc constantly at work with vacuum cleaners, mops, brooms, brushes and dust cloths.

However, neatness is responsible for only part of the Gardens’ success. Big and faithful followings have been built up for the two main regular attractions — professional hockey and wrestling — through good showmanship. Promotion has been made easy through the help of a co-operative and uncritical daily press.

When the big arena was proposed not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea. There were eighty thousand unemployed in Toronto alone in 1931; men were glad to get jobs at $7.40 a week on relief projects; and the impression was growing that the Depression was settling in for as long a run, perhaps, as Tobacco Road.

Direct opposition to the building came from the Rev. Dr. John Inkster, of Knox Presbyterian Church, whose alarm had been heightened by a rumor that it might be built near his kirk. His words have a familiar look today. "These people who follow professional sport do it for the sake of blood. It would be a crime to permit the building of an arena where thugs could gather and infest the neighborhood,” he said.

A downtown site at Church and Carlton Streets, the scene of an historic skirmish be-

tween William Lyon Mackenzie's rebels and the loyalists in the uprising of 1837, was secured. But the million-and-a-half-dollar building would probably not have been finished in time for the hockey season that fall if Smythe had not persuaded some of the workmen and contractors to take part of their pay in stock.

Today a hundred of them, including five unions who accepted shares in lieu of dues from their members, still hold stock in the Gardens. Shares worth fifty cents each in 1935 reached a peak of a hundred dollars each by 1946. In 1947 they were split four for one and the split shares arc currently quoted at around twenty dollars, or the equivalent of eighty dollars apiece for the original shares, a hundred-and-sixty-fold appreciation in value. There are no preferred shares and the company has no funded debt. Smythe, who is the president, is the largest shareholder.

In a business where a defenseman’s lapse can show up in the annual statement by denying the arena the revenue from a playoff round, the Gardens has made money from its first year when it was $40,535 in the black. The net profit for the year ended last August was $214,586 and a dividend of $1.46 a share was paid.

The gloomy predictions about the lack of patronage were dispelled even before the Gardens opened on Nov. 12. 1931. All seats were sold long before the game, which was won 2-1 by the Chicago Black Hawks. The Maple Leafs, propelled by the famous Kid Line of Conacher, I^rimeau and Jackson, went on to win the Stanley

Cup that year. While the Kid Line did not help to win another championship they did for the Gardens what Babe Ruth did for Yankee Stadium by keeping it well filled. There has not been an unsold seat since 1946 at a Maple Leafs’ game.

The biggest crowd for which there is an accurate count was the one of 16.318 that saw the Montreal Canadiens lose 3-0 on Nov. 16. 1946. Higher attendance has been claimed for meetings where no admission was charged and no precise count was made. That night there were so many standees that some of them could not follow the play. With a nudge from the fire department, the management set a limit of 14,550.

Many people, such as L. S. Tarshis, a Toronto machinery manufacturer who holds red seats, have been season-ticket subscribers ever since the arena opened. Scats stay in the family and are passed on to the children like heirlooms, getting a little better as time goes by. and the management gives faithful clients a chance to improve their position along the rail as vacancies occur. Of the 12.586 seats 10.480 are held by subscribers, which leaves the scalpers a slender margin on which to operate.

Hockey is a habit not only to those who come to the Gardens, but to an even larger audience, estimated at six million, continued on page 36

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Conn Smythe’s wondrous pleasure dome continued from page 22

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From a Gardens’ seat a wrestler saw himself licked in the ring

who follow the games on television and radio. No less devoted are the wrestling fans who can follow their hobby through the entire year. The wrestlers yield only to such week-long attractions as the opera.

Next to the Maple Leaf hockey team, owned by the Gardens, the wrestlers are the rink's best tenants. Smythe arranged to have the professional hockey schedule adjusted so that midweek games would be played on Wednesdays, leaving Thursdays clear for the wrestlers’ regular romp. It costs $1,750 to rent the Gardens for a meeting but commercial attractions such as wrestling and ice shows are brought in on a percentage deal.

But Smythe built the Gardens primarily for hockey and to fill it he has built up the league’s most durable following. Through good years and bad —and recent years have not been good ones on the ice for the Leafs—interest and hope continue to burn undiminished, fed by a fine constant spray of propaganda.

Smythe, whose father was a newspaperman with the late Toronto World, is his own best public-relations man. He combines the aggressive skill of a circus press agent with the understanding and the sensitivity of a dramatist. He knows that if the Maple Leafs are to be secure in the hearts of their countrymen the people out there must cure what happens to them.

There never has been any doubt that Smythe cares. He has covered more miles around the perimeter of the Gardens, arguing as he went with referees, than did the six-day bike riders who used to be on display there. Some people have suspected this public indignation was an act but Smythe has been generous with his anger to the point where he has blown his top on his own time and in comparative privacy.

One night when Bill Stewart, the former NHL referee, was coaching the Black Hawks, Smythe accosted him under the stands long before game time and began to harangue him. In an attempt to break up what he thought was an undignified exhibition, a friend urged Smythe to return to his own dressing room and then undertook to convoy Stewart to his. He was met at the door by some of the mightier members of the Chicago team, their sticks rampant, on their way out to finish off Smythe. They were persuaded to call it off. Smythe has been making people mad at him ever since, but not mad enough to stay away from the Gardens.

By his own admission Smythe, who is now sixty-two. is through "hollering.” Early this year there were rumors that he had even considered selling the Gardens and that E. P. Taylor was interested in buying it. The hockey team is now run by a committee of young businessmen, all directors of the Gardens, who have been dubbed the Silver Seven. His son Stafford is the chairman of the group, which works with the coach on plans for the team. Up to the time this was written Smythe had stood firmly on his resolve to let the committee run the team.

"I don't know whether they (the committee) are in tune with the times yet but they will be. 1 no longer trust my own judgment in picking hockey players.” he said in a recent interview. “I see teams winning with guys 1 wouldn’t

have, and some I’ve picked haven’t done too well.”

When Howie Meeker was fired as manager, before the season started, Smythe was informed of the action, which countermanded an appointment he had made a few months earlier, by a letter from the committee. The public, however, found it as difficult to think of the Leafs without Smythe as Christmas without Santa Claus. When Meeker was discharged it was against Smythe that the criticism was directed. Perhaps just to keep his hand in. the committee asked him to handle the fight with the new players’ association.

Even though he no longer runs the hockey team and goes south for much of the winter his personality and presence still dominate the Gardens like the blue-and-white color scheme. For this is the house that he built first with steel and bricks and credit, and then with such publicity stunts as the one that starred his pudgy goaltender Turk Broda. In the fall of 1949 Broda reported for work overweight. Smythe told him he had to get seven pounds off in a week or he would be fired. He took it off.

Recalling his coup recently, Smythe said, "We had to do something. There had been nothing in the papers but football for months."

A lesson for psychologists

Smythe’s fondest memory of a night in his Gardens has nothing to do with the winning of a championship (seven Stanley Cups) or a benefit for crippled children, his favorite charity.

"Shortly after we opened the Gardens a local opera group came to me and said they wanted to put on a program," he recalled recently. "We made a deal for the use of the Gardens that would let them get started, but things went badly for them from the beginning and houses were slim. On the last night, singing Aida before no more than a thousand people, just a handful in that big place, they sang as I'm sure they had never sung before. It was as though this one was for themselves to prove that they were good. And they were terrific. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

If Smythe, with theatrical devices such as Turk Broda’s enforced fast, is the Sheridan of what are sometimes referred to as "the ice lanes,” Frank Tunney, the promoter, is the Mike Todd of the wrestling game.

He once gave two psychologists tickets to see a show. They wanted to observe at first hand the hysteria that grips the women, who make up more than half of the audience. They wanted to study the mass impulses that stir the crowds that go to build up an annual attendance of more than three hundred thousand. They came back a second night without their notebooks and have been fans ever since.

Wrestling continues to prosper, borne on the strong shoulders of hillbillies in torn denim pants, hairy Muscovites, clean-cut Australians, performers affectionately known to some fans as “the little midgets,” and largely by Whipper Watson, that best of all possible attractions, a formidable local boy.

But it has known no finer hours than those made hideous, in a harmless but exciting way, by a succession of Masked

Marvels. The first Mask, as he was known in the trade, was an amiable athlete called Jerry Monaghan, from Hamilton. Jerry, before getting steady work under a hood as a heavy, had been a dependable if unexciting Good Guy. But as the Mask he whipped up the passions of the crowd to the consistency of zabaglione as high as the greens.

On the night the Marvel was to be unmasked a former promoter. Ivan Mickailoff, who had also been a wrestler, was in the audience explaining to his friends how, when faced with the exposure of the villain, the management had shrunk from revealing Monaghan so they had substituted a man of less patent gentility called Bulldog Cox. “And where is the real Masked Marvel?” asked one of the listeners with the air of a man who had just heard for the first time that amateur hockey players got paid. "He’s back there watching himself get beat." said Mickailoff, pointing over his shoulde. to the crowd.

Not all entertainments and sports have done as well as hockey and wrestling. Six-day bike racing had a whirl at the Gardens in the early Thirties before it ground to a stop. Indoor soccer was tried, as was dog racing. Jack Kramer's professional tennis players still draw and so does basketball when offered by the Harlem Globe Trotters. Organized professional basketball, with a Toronto team called the Huskies, folded after one season. Shortly after the Gardens opened, professional lacrosse was on display for a time, with two teams from Montreal and one each from Toronto and Cornwall. But business got so bad that when columnist Ted Reeve, then playing for the Montreal Maroons, was asked one night by a teammate to look out from the dressing room and tell him how the crowd looked, he replied, “Fine-—fie just lit a cigar.”

When the No Smoking signs in the corners of the arena are almost obscured by a thick veil of smoke and the crowd has a knowing, self-consciously sportive air that it shares only with race-track crowds it is a fight night at the Gardens.

Toronto fight fans currently have a new champion, uncrowned of course, in a heavyweight, young George Chuvalo, whose chin, they hope, is as durable as their faith. Their hero and their faith lost a decision on points last fall when George tangled with an ageing but kindly Negro fighter named Bob Baker, who gave him a lesson. Baker brought drooping spirits back to normal when he allowed that Master Chuvalo had a future when he smartened up.

In addition to sports, the Gardens, in its busy quarter century, has housed the circus, a rodeo, beauty pageants. Boy Scout and Girl Guide jamborees, bazaars, bingoes, track meets and Elvis Presley. Bob Hope has also played the Gardens and Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Graham have conducted revival meetings there. Dorothy Thompson has viewed with alarm from the Gardens’ platform. During the war clear-eyed capitalists saw their bifocals fog up with emotion when Paul Robeson sang to them about their Russian comrades-in-arms. Jean Harlow, who is spoken of by some Hollywood historians as though she were the discoverer of sex, played the Gardens in a revue in the early Thirties. The Sadler's Wells Ballet, now the Royal Ballet, has

danced there and appeared again in Janaary. And there have been evenings of high drama which had nothing to do with the theatre.

One was the night in December 1934 when Tim Buck came back from prison :o stand on a stage banked with red carnations to tell his story. There were fifteen thousand in the Gardens and the little man they had come to see stood in the spotlight in the ill-fitting suit they had given him a week before when he left Kingston Penitentiary. He raised his prison-pale face while the International broke in waves of sound over him and 'he stage. A small group tried to sing God Save the King and they were booed down.

Earlier in the same year Winston Churchill came to the Gardens while on a lecture tour through the U. S. and Canada. The night before, in Washington, he had used a newfangled lapel microphone and he wanted the same kind for his ToTonto speech. Foster Hewitt, radio director of the Gardens, attempted to dissuade the great man by explaining that it was unsuitable for the big auditorium. Displaying the stubbornness that was later to provide his wartime colleagues with MJ many good anecdotes for their memoirs, Churchill insisted on the lapel device. "When I want your advice, young man. I'll ask for it,” he told Hewitt.

Even when the small crowd grew restive and called to him to speak louder Churchill persisted to the end with the inadequate microphone.

Hewitt is one of the thirty-five employees, including Smythe and four other directors, who have been with the firm since the beginning. He chose the height of his famous gondola, five stories above the ice. after watching pedestrians from successive floors of an office building. At this height of sixty feet he felt he could combine maximum visibility of the icb surface with an intimate look at the players and their manoeuvres.

Hewitt once had to make his way to the gondola over a swaying catwalk, a hundred and twenty feet above the ice, but the catwalk has been replaced by a solidly constructed bridge that takes the thrills out of the journey. This season he has divided the broadcasting job in two and his son Bill does the radio version while he continues with the telecast.

There have been other changes around the Gardens in recent years, some of them made in time to show to the twenty thousand visitors who attended an Open House at the time of the anniversary celebrations in October 1955. Escalators now take once hard-climbing spectators as far as the greens.

Another refinement is a pipe organ bought from Shea’s, an old Toronto vaudeville theatre, now demolished. The organ, a bargain at fifteen hundred dollars although experts say it will cost forty-five thousand dollars to repair and set up, is to be installed this summer.

Unbreakable glass to protect spectators on the rail at the side will be added. While spectators occasionally get hit by a stick or a puck and require first aid, the Gardens’ disclaimer on their tickets has successfully protected the company against payment of damages although suits have been filed. Some fans in rail seats bring transparent plastic masks and one woman has worn a sequined catcher's mask for protection.

In keeping with its good-housekeeping policy the Gardens set out, immediately after the war. to drive out the gamblers, who on hockey nights congregated in a "bull ring” on the promenade outside the blues where the bookmakers had operated for years as a convenience to the patrons. With the help of Pinkerton men

and the Toronto police the ring was formally broken up. although in an emergency, as at playoff time when the public need for the service is greatest, the bookies have been known to drift back and ply their trade with the same discretion and high ethical standards that made them a tradition in less censorious times.

The most successful innovation of recent years has been the annual visit of the Metropolitan Opera Company, which returns at the end of this May for the sixth year to open with its new produc-

tion, in English, of the seldom-performed Eugene Onegin, starring the baritone George London, formerly of Montreal. Six operas will be presented.

These engagements are sponsored by the Rotary Club of Toronto: the cost of a hundred and seventy-four thousand dollars is jointly underwritten by the club and the Gardens. The Rotarians have made a hundred and thirty thousand dollars, which they have given to a wide variety of charities, such as hospitals, in Toronto. In addition, a hundred thousand dollars, now amortized, has been spent on a

handsome red and gold curtain, a giant grid from which to hang it and other stage properties, new seats for the body of the arena and improved acoustics.

In 1952 the company sang Carmen to an audience of twelve thousand, the largest ever to attend an opera. When singer Rise Stevens came forward to take one of her many curtain calls, she asked to have the house lights turned up. Her gaze swept the big arena. Like any other out-of-town visitor she knew that Maple Leaf Gardens was one of the places to see in Toronto. ★